CHILDREN IN "THE WILD BUNCH"
a commentary by Tony McRae
Most critics who've written about Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) speculate on the presence of children in the film, usually coupling them with the many violent scenes in the movie such as the opening and closing sequences, both of which turn into blood baths that had rarely been seen before on film. Why does Peckinpah insist on children as witness? they ask. These critics usually answer their own question by stating that war and violence are corruptions and that children are their primary victims, who will, in all likelihood, reenact the violence they experience later in their lives. Perhaps. But it is the "look" of the children, their gaze of awe and fright and bewilderment that seems at the heart of their presence. In virtually every scene in which they appear they are looking up at adults, often with admiration, even respect. I find these gazes compelling and frightening.
A motif that sets The Wild Bunch apart from other westerns is this insistence on having children present no matter what the occasion, be it an abstinence parade, a bloody gunfight, a respite in a Mexican village. I counted thirteen occasions when children are present or play a role in the action.
In one of the great openings in film, Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads his men--disguised as army soldiers--into a Texan border town to rob a railroad office bank. On the outskirts they pass a circle of children poking at scorpions being attacked by hundreds of red fire ants, their young clear faces smiling and giggling as the ravaging ants swarm around the scorpions. After the aborted holdup the remnants of the Bunch make their escape, and pass the same children who are now throwing straw onto the scorpions and ants and setting them on fire, their faces sweetly aglow as if they were listening to a bedtime story.
Bracketed between these two scenes of the children is the ambush of the Bunch and the ensuing carnage as the Bunch and the bounty hunters slaughter each other and civilians alike. The shooting begins as an abstinence parade (including children with swinging arms and happy faces) passes by the railroad office. Throughout the ensuing battle we see a young boy and girl, probably brother and sister, no more than nine or ten years old, as they watch the blood letting. During this sequence Peckinpah cuts from the battle to these two children six times, their faces a mixture of awe and fright. Other children can be seen huddled protectively beside a wall (three cuts). Later, as the bounty hunters plunder the dead bodies, some eight or nine children run among the dead bodies and reenact the shooting, using their fingers as guns.
Later, in Angel's village the Bunch holds up and rests. Children and babies are everywhere: Angel sings a Mexican song to a mother and her two children; other children surround members of the Bunch and look at them with admiration. We see much of this scene through Pike's weary eyes. Perhaps he recalls the children surrounding the scorpions and ants, perhaps he sees the bleak future for these Mexican children. Earlier he'd told Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) that the railroad job was to be his last, and perhaps for a moment he's thinking of giving it all up. But for what? There is no doubt he has regrets, but what are they? Obviously he blames himself for his role in the betrayal of his friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who is now forced by the railroad to hunt the Bunch down. Pike Bishop and the others live by a code of standing by your friends. He does not shoot women or children, and ironically in the last scene he is shot in the back by both. The Bunch is bad, no question, yet those that fight them are worse: the railroad wants their money back, and if that means killing innocents, so be it; Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) is a thug who claims to be helping his people, but in fact rapes the land for his own appetites.
After the Bunch leaves Angel's village they travel to Mapache's stronghold to make a deal with the generalissimo. Here again children are everywhere, though they remain in the background. This is the Bunch's first visit to this encampment, and when they return for the climatic battle one child at least will take up arms against them.
In the spectacular train robbery sequence the Bunch seems to pull off the heist without a glitch, but Thornton is ready for them and with his men he follows in pursuit. But the army who is supposed to aid Thornton and give chase is made up of "green recruits" who do more harm than good. In fact, they are hardly men at all but mere boys, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen. Peckinpah underlines in no uncertain terms the old truism that war is old men sending young men into battle.
As Mapache waits at a train station for the arms the Bunch will deliver, he is attacked by Pancho Villa's forces. Though it's quite obvious he is greatly outnumbered and outgunned, he stands his ground with bravado. We have the distinct impression he does this to impress the young telegraph messenger who clearly adores the generalissimo. In his turn, Mapache smiles affectionately down at the lad, the one time he shows any humanity.
In the final sequence in Mapache's stronghold, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is held by the Mexicans for stealing rifles for his village. He is dragged in the street behind a car and the village's children run after him, laughing and jumping on him, tormenting him in the most vicious way. Their action should prepare us for the last minutes of the film when Pike is shot in the back by a boy who can't be more than twelve.
I find it interesting that most times when groups of children are present, they are performing acts of violence, be it against insects (scorpions and ants) or pretending to shoot one another in the street after the first gunfight or tormenting a man being dragged behind a car.
So we come back to our first question: what is Peckinpah up to here? Yes, children are affected by violence and perhaps corrupted by it. But those children with the scorpions and ants--might we infer that they are tainted, that we humans are naturally inclined to violence from an early age? Or maybe the violence which permeates the air makes even the young inured. The two young Mexican boys, Mapache's messenger and the one whose shot kills Pike, they are the future for Peckinpah, they will inherit the mantle of violence of Mapache and Pike and Deke Thornton. It's a bleak outlook which tempers The Wild Bunch's message that standing by your friends whatever the cost is paramount, that one does what needs doing despite overwhelming odds.
In Angel's village an elder says to Pike: "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all." But what child? I think it's significant that the respite in the village is the one time when children are seen as children, or at least as the kind of children we hope will inherit the earth. Perhaps Pike and the Bunch believe this when they walk to their death to save Angel, the youngest among them. At the very end of the film Deke and Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) ride off with men from Angel's village to fight, we presume, for the cause of Mexican liberation--and to give the next generation a chance. Peckinpah would probably say, "a fighting chance."
Peckinpah has taken pains in this movie to include the entire range of the young, from an infant suckling at a mother's breast to fledglings of eight or nine to preteens to fresh-faced army kids. I can't help but believe that this is deliberate, that somehow he wishes us to see and feel the presence of all these youths. Seen from this perspective The Wild Bunch becomes a cautionary tale of great poetic and visceral impact. The viewer must decide how to respond.
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